Back in 1980, Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon made their famous bet, recounted by John Tierney at its culmination 10 years later:
In 1980 an ecologist and an economist chose a refreshingly unacademic way to resolve their differences. They bet $1,000. Specifically, the bet was over the future price of five metals, but at stake was much more — a view of the planet’s ultimate limits, a vision of humanity’s destiny. It was a bet between the Cassandra and the Dr. Pangloss of our era.
They lead two intellectual schools — sometimes called the Malthusians and the Cornucopians, sometimes simply the doomsters and the boomsters — that use the latest in computer-generated graphs and foundation-generated funds to debate whether the world is getting better or going to the dogs. The argument has generally been as fruitless as it is old, since the two sides never seem to be looking at the same part of the world at the same time. Dr. Pangloss sees farm silos brimming with record harvests; Cassandra sees topsoil eroding and pesticide seeping into ground water. Dr. Pangloss sees people living longer; Cassandra sees rain forests being decimated. But in 1980 these opponents managed to agree on one way to chart and test the global future. They promised to abide by the results exactly 10 years later — in October 1990 — and to pay up out of their own pockets.
What was the result? Simon won handily.
But recent goings on with commodity prices have some people asking whether Simon’s timing was just lucky and perhaps Ehrlich views will ultimately triumph. In August, The Economist reported that had the famous bet extended to 2011, Ehrich would have won, as shown in the graph below. (Roger Pielke Jr.)